Kofo Owokoniran was a participant on this year's inaugural Film Critics Day workshop at the Cinema Rediscovered film festival in Bristol and Clevedon in the U.K. Cinema Rediscovered is a celebration of the finest new digital restorations, contemporary classics and film print rarities from across the globe. 15 early career and aspiring film critics took part in a full day workshop looking at the state of things for film criticism in the U.K. and beyond. They each produced a written or visual piece of criticism around the films in the program. Further examples of their work, as well as information about the program, can be found on the Cinema Rediscovered Blog.
Having seen Sidney J. Furie’s entry into the 80s lexicon of horror, for the first time at the Cinema Rediscovered film festival in Bristol, it occurs to me that The Entity (1982) could be considered timeless. Not for the content of the film itself; it’s a barely competent film, absurd and surreal in the worst sense of those words. Not for the story, either, which tries and fails to weave a cursory commentary on the evils of patriarchy into a confusing and gangrenous narrative. Rather, I consider it timeless because of the theoretical implications within the film, and because of the story that lies festering beneath. An accidentally discovered truth is the real message of the movie: that to be a woman in this world is to be born into a trap of constant investigation and surveillance.
The Entity is the story of Carla Moran (Barbara Hershey), a mother of three who lives a fairly innocuous life before, suddenly and without warning, she is violently attacked and raped by an invisible entity. Watching the film, we spend almost all our time with Carla. There is an intimacy to the film that is bordering on voyeuristic, and is almost definitely a form of surveillance. Barbara Hershey’s face dominates the frame throughout the film. From the moment she is first attacked up until the very end of the film, she is simultaneously seeking privacy and validation.
We follow Carla into her bedroom. We hover over her shoulder as she says goodnight to her children and watch as she shifts in her bed in terror; through closed doors and countless mirrors and, at one point, through an actual surveillance camera. Before her attack, we knew nothing of this woman. However, since the arrival of the entity (and it doesn’t matter what the entity is outside of what it represents) we know her more intimately than her lover does. Barbara Hershey is a perfect fit for this role. Her face is angular and hollow, with restless, narrow eyes. However, given how well we come to know Carla, it is often difficult to discern whether the suspicion she wears on her face belongs to the character or to the demanding and unwarranted voyeurism the actress herself is subject to. Sidney J. Furie’s surveillance of Carla/Hershey is constant; the camera follows her from room to room. Into the bath, it traces her eyes. There is no relief for her. This is an extreme response to the limited roles (and physical space) that were (and remain) available for women in film. In place of a treatment of this, there is a ham-fisted subversion: Carla takes up the film. She is afforded the most space and time, but only to heighten the unrelenting surveillance she is under.
In fact, Sidney J. Furie seems just as culpable as any man that he is condemning in his weak critique of patriarchy. Especially, when we consider the fact that none of this excessive surveillance of Carla seems to serve a particular narrative purpose, that the director simply feels like exploring her threshold of pain, and observing it like a peripheral vulture. There is a brazen sense of entitlement to put her under such stress, the story notwithstanding. This is further supported by the bizarre and surreal paranormal direction the story takes, where Carla’s house is faithfully reconstructed at a university, with the addition of several cameras, and the entity takes on a corporeal form and is ‘captured,’ to prove to her psychiatrist and everyone present that she was indeed telling the truth.
By sacrificing ambiguity, a staple of effective horror storytelling, for explicitness, Furie shows that not only does he fail to understand the genre he’s working in, but he also doesn’t understand his own story. I call his critique of patriarchy weak because, despite a plethora of frustrating, heart-breaking and insane interactions with men throughout the film, Furie presents it all through the frame of an ultimately physical supernatural entity, trailing an excuse for the men in the film’s wake. The psychologist is adamant in his disbelief of her, yes, even going as far as to diagnose it as a perverted Oedipal desire Carla harbours for her own son. But who among you, Furie asks, would believe anyone if they come to you claiming the supernatural? Her de facto fiancé leaves her after witnessing an attack from the entity for himself. But, who among you, Furie posits, could deal with a woman being haunted by a supernatural rapist? And, ultimately, by descending into the surreal and providing an outlet for these questions, Furie reveals the patriarchal nature of his own film. By making the entity an actuality, Furie stubbornly provides answers for questions that didn’t have answers then and still don’t, now.
What the entity is does not matter. Whether it exists or not does not matter. Had the entity remained invisible, what then is the excuse for the dismissal and betrayal of Carla by various men in her life that occurs throughout the film? Rather than absolve them of blame through a convoluted third act, why not examine the horror of having other people’s perception and projections thrust upon you with no opportunity for an escape, to even the privacy of your own home? Life in such an instance can only be a surreal experience, and Furie devalues these questions with his foray into the paranormal, exposing the inherent patriarchy of his own storytelling in the process.
I think of The Entity as timeless, now, because while the filmmaking and incidental quirks of the film may be emblematic of its time, for a modern audience it only serves to skewer any argument that can be made for progress since then. The surveillance experienced by Carla is now commonplace, a daily reality for women everywhere. And the lower down the rung you find yourself; as a woman, as a black woman, as a trans black woman, the more susceptible you are to the dangers of this surveillance, and the more intimate you are with the truth of the futility of this life, to be born into this trap with effectively no escape except, unlikely: the amassing of an obscene amount of wealth in a short time, or more likely: death.